Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Ben Younger
Running Time: 117 mins
Synopsis: Boxer Vinny Pazienza shoots to fame after winning two world title fights, but after his latest victory he is involved in a horrific car accident. Breaking his neck and told he may never walk again, he manages to train himself up and start boxing again. All this is a true story.
I have to admire any director who decides to take on a sports movie. Out of all the genres the big screen provides it is the ones filled with sportsmen and their ilk that suffer from the most frequent cliches. If you can name one sports film that doesn’t contain an underdog story, coming back from repeated losses to take a win, or one that features a coach all washed up, drinking heavily and whom everyone has written off finding new faith in a young star, then you get the winning trophy. There are many many more too, the father who sees his own chance of becoming someone in his child’s victories, or the shameless company men, whether they be boxing promoters or the money players, who see nothing but dollar signs in their future champions. The list goes on. Director Ben Younger, who returns after an almost decade long hiatus, has found himself with a sporting film that is almost drowning in these fundamental genre trappings. However the saving grace is the second half kicker that brings in a side order of physical and mental anguish.
Before we get to that tragic moment we must first suffer through a pretty formulaic opening stretch. Vinny Pazienza is cocky, brash and does not know when to stop pushing forward, whether that be in the ring, in the bed or in his career. This brashness is given confident swagger from Miles Teller, who here delivers a truly committed and likeable performance. Teller has always been a somewhat funny looking star, but in this with his crooked nose and numerous scars, consequences of a real life car accident similar to the one depicted here, he certainly looks like a man with a life in the ring. Hailing from a close knit Italian American family, another cliche akin to the smothering bickering sisterhood seen in The Fighter, with his father (a almost caricature performance from Ciaran Hinds) as manager and mother (Katey Segal) as the token ‘ma’ who can never watch her son fight. Losing a title fight, Vinny begs his smarmy promoters for another chance, landing in the gym of washed up coach Kevin Rooney. Unrecognisable in his bald cap and beer belly, Aaron Eckhart is terrific. In his gait and posture you feel the weight of a man who has seen it all, experienced the fame (he trained Mike Tyson) and been left a hollow shell. Always attempting to temper Vinny’s more outlandish ideas, he drives the heart of the latter half, when all of Vinny’s friends write off his potential comeback due to the horrific accident that causes his neck to break.
The moment when it comes is a shock to the system and the film. Younger films it with unshowy force that if the trailers hadn’t already shown us would have been even more effective. Waking up to the notion that he may never walk again let alone fight, Teller sells the hopeless anguish of a man with nothing left to live for. Opting for a cumbersome hideous neck device that literally screws into his skull in the vague hope it could lead back into the ring. As he drifts around aimless and purposeless Younger makes a wise choice in never over-egging the drama. Sports films are generally known for their big emotions, with their ever rising triumphant scores and crowdpleasing melodrama, but the low-key approach pays dividends here. Being so underplayed causes the first more cliched half to come across dull but in the latter section it sort of clicks. A scene of Vinny being driven home as he quietly and briefly sobs is moving, much more preferable to some outlandish hand wringing screaming of emotion.
Once the whole feeling sorry for himself portion is over Vinny decides to get back into training mode. His first moment of trying to lift a simple weight is incredibly tense, not knowing whether at any point his neck may give way. In fact that feeling seeps into a lot of the later scenes, notably during a TV interview set within the family gym in which one brave guy agrees to fight Vinny (most opt out, not wanting to be the person responsible for potentially paralysing him) and when the first punch lands you wait with bated breath as to the outcome. The interplay between Eckhart and Teller is at its strongest here, with their obvious love and respect for each other shown via constant bickering and genuine affection. In fact all of the films relationships get stronger here, especially between Vinny and his father. Hinds is almost a ridiculous caricature to begin with, a strange accent and outlandish mannerisms contributing, but reveals a hidden depth upon his realisation that he cannot watch his son put himself through this. Segal is also decent, if a little underused.
It doesn’t take a genius or even someone with a basic knowledge of Google search to figure out that Vinny will return to the ring and succeed, but the final fight is nerve wracking and emotional albeit a little flat in the direction. There is none of the technical chutzpah of a Ryan Coogler’s Creed or David O’Russell’s The Fighter here. This restraint and simplicity may work for the domestic scenes but an exciting boxing fight they do not make. A shame because it is an otherwise stirring denouement. As images and videos of the real life Vinny and team play out over the credits you realise that he is the sort of character that deserves a little less discipline and bit more showmanship.
Verdict: Eckhart and Teller give committed eminently watchable performances, and the film is effectively underplayed but it cannot rise above the usual crippling genre cliches to truly land the killer blow.